Dawkins and His Poor Scholarship

St. Augustine as imagined by Sandro Botticelli in the late 15th century. (Public Domain Image)
I was speaking to a group of people in Portland, Indiana last night. As always, I took questions from the audience, and after the session, people came up and asked me more questions. In this individual question/answer session, one man said that he had read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and he was wondering if I had any insight into something Dawkins claimed in the fourth chapter, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” The man didn’t have the book with him, but he said that Dawkins claimed that St. Augustine (properly pronounced uh gus’ tin) encouraged people to avoid learning about the natural world, as gaps in our knowledge of the natural world glorify God. In other words, if we were to understand everything about the natural world, there would be nothing left to attribute to the Hand of God.

I read The God Delusion a few years ago, and I didn’t remember Dawkins making such a statement. I told the man that I am neither a philosopher nor a historian, but I can’t imagine St. Augustine saying any such thing. Augustine was very concerned about all manner of learning, and although he rarely wrote about anything related to science, I couldn’t imagine him saying that we shouldn’t learn about the natural world. I promised the man that I would look into it and write him back.

This morning, I looked around in Chapter 4 of my paperback edition of The God Delusion and found the portion to which the man was referring. In a subsection of the chapter entitled, “The Worship of Gaps,” Dawkins discusses Intelligent Design. He says that it basically promotes scientific laziness, because as soon as you attribute something to the Hand of God, there is nothing more you can learn about it. He then goes even further and says that an advocate of Intelligent Design would actually tell scientists to stop learning about something that is amazingly complex, so it can always be attributed to God. He then says:1

St Augustine said it quite openly: ‘There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.’ (quoted in Freeman 2002)

The reference he gives (Freeman 2002) is The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman. Like his discussion of Intelligent Design before it, this quote is 100% false.

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Homeschooling with Heroes

The U.S. capitol building at night. (My photo)

Last week, I had the privilege of of speaking to the Bolling Area Home Educators (BAHE), a group of military homeschoolers who live on the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling near Washington, DC. In other words, I got the opportunity to speak to heroes and their families. These brave men and women sacrifice so much in order to keep up safe, and those who choose to homeschool their children sacrifice even more. The nature of military life often means one spouse is gone for extended periods of time, which means that the spouse who stays at home must carry the burdens of parenting and educating alone. In addition, homeschooling is made significantly easier when you have a consistent network of other homeschoolers in your area. Because our military heroes rarely stay in one location for more than a few years, a military homeschooler rarely has the consistent support network enjoyed by most other homeschoolers in the U.S.

The trip got off to a very military start, because a good friend of mine has his private pilot’s license, and he agreed to fly me there in a Cessna Cutlass 172RG. Since we were flying into the DC area, there were all sorts of restrictions related to where we could fly, and he was actually given instructions on what to do if the fighter jets came to escort us out of a restricted area. Since there were so many restricted areas, I assumed we wouldn’t see any actual military traffic. It turns out that I was wrong.

We were flying towards the Manassas Regional Airport at an altitude of 5,000 feet. There was a solid layer of white clouds at around 2,000 feet, well below where we were. As we were flying, air traffic control told us to be aware that there were two F/A-18 jets doing some maneuvers in our area at about 3,000 feet. We scanned the sky below us and sure enough, we got to see them flying around! Of course, they were flying so quickly that they were hard to follow for any length of time, but it was amazing to watch from our point of view!

Once the bird’s-eye view of military maneuvers was over, we landed, and it was time to get a ground-level view of military life and homeschooling. Because the guest housing at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling was full, we ended up staying in the guest quarters at Fort Belvoir, another military base in the D.C. area. It was very interesting to see life on the base from the inside.

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The MidSouth Homeschool Convention

Over the past weekend, I spoke at the Midsouth Homeschool Convention, which is a part of the Great Homeschool Conventions series. It was held in Memphis, TN, so pictures and tributes to Elvis were abundant everywhere except the convention itself. I didn’t give as many talks at this convention as is typical, so that left more time for my favorite part of a homeschool convention: talking with students and parents.

Since I am not selling anything at homeschool conventions these days, my booth in the exhibit hall looks rather odd. It consists of a plain black-and-white sign that just has my name on it, an empty table, two chairs, and me. In contrast to most of the other booths that try to attract people in with color banners, comfy couches, potted plants, and videos, mine looks pretty bare. The CEO of Home Educating Family thought it was just too bare, so he added one “decoration.” On my plain white sign, he wrote “The Doctor Is In” and gave me a sticky note that said “OUT.” When I left my booth, I could cover the word “In” with the sticky note. Perhaps it doesn’t sound funny to you, but I thought it was hilarious, and I used it the whole time I was there. I regret that I did not take a picture of it before I left.

Although the bulk of this post will deal with a question I got in one of my talks, I do want to mention one thing that really impressed me. It turns out that during the conference, some low-life broke into several of the vendors’ vans. While most vendors didn’t lose much, one vendor’s van was loaded with an iPad and some other important technology, so they were looking at a serious financial loss. In order to help them out, several other vendors took up a collection. Now these vendors are all competitors. If you buy a math course from one vendor, that probably means you won’t buy a math course from any other vendor. Nevertheless, the vendors all gave generously. That really impressed me. Even in business, Christians should put compassion first, and that’s what I saw happening in Memphis.

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Why Do Muscles Hurt One or Two Days After Weightlifting?

An infrequent but very entertaining commenter on this blog, Black Sheep, asked the following question:

In an effort to drop some pounds, I’ve started focusing on building muscle (instead of endurance) and therefore lifting weights. I understand the basic principle of why muscles get sore, but for me, and most people I know, 2 days after the work out seems to be FAR more painful than the day after. As with my other question, why is this, and is there anything I can do to prevent it?

I would like to use this blog post to answer her question.

There are three basic reasons why muscles get sore in response to exercise. First, there is a buildup of acid in muscles when they are forced to burn energy very quickly. The muscle soreness you experience during a workout is usually the result of acid buildup, but it quickly goes away as the acids are flushed out of your muscles.

The second reason is a bit more long-term. Your muscles work by contracting. In order for your muscles to contract, calcium must be imported into the muscle cell. When the muscle relaxes, the calcium leaves the cell. So repeatedly contracting and relaxing your muscles (which is what you do when you exercise) causes calcium to continually enter and leave the cell. This produces a swelling in the muscle tissue, and that causes inflammation. In addition, this constant import and export of calcium serves as a trigger for the cell to break down proteins and rebuild them so that they can do more. This ends up building up the muscle, but at the cost of some pain.

Neither of these effects explains what is happening in Black Sheep’s case, however. Black Sheep is experiencing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and it is the result of a completely different process.

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Creation Science in South Korea

I am on my way home from an incredible tour of New Zealand, South Korea, and Australia. I had great experiences in each country, and they will lead to several more blog posts. Even though I was most recently in Australia, I am not done reporting on my experiences in South Korea. I first want to finish my report on that country, and then I will discuss my wonderful time in Australia.

After speaking at the DCTY homeschooling convention in Seoul (which was fantastic) I spoke at KAIST church. To fully appreciate my experience there, you have to understand that KAIST is the main science and technology university in South Korea. Well before I knew I was going to travel to South Korea, I had heard of KAIST. It has an international reputation for producing not only good science, but also excellent graduates. It is not surprising, then, that KAIST is sometimes referred to as the MIT of South Korea.

The church service was held on the third floor of the student center, a building that sits on the university campus and was built by the university for its students. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the room in which the church service was held and saw this:

A creation science display on the KAIST campus

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Homeschooling in New Zealand

This is typical of the lush scenery that exists all over New Zealand!

I am currently in New Zealand on a homeschooling tour arranged by the Firelight Foundation. This is not my first visit to this lovely country, and it most certainly won’t be my last. In 2006, my wife (Kathleen) and I traveled here to do our first “Kiwi” homeschooling tour, and in 2009, we came back here to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Each time I am here, I am struck by two things. First, this has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. The plant life is lush, the air smells amazing, and the landscape is truly breathtaking. Second, the people are incredible. Everyone is particularly friendly and helpful. They really give you the impression that they want to help you enjoy your stay here. Of course, working with homeschoolers in New Zealand is a double blessing, because I get to see how home education produces such stellar students regardless of the country in which it is taking place.

My first stop on this New Zealand homeschooling tour was the lovely town of Palmerston North. Situated in the Southern part of the North Island, it is New Zealand’s seventh largest city, and the venue at which I spoke was packed. I gave a total of six talks (two in one evening and four during the next day), and as you would expect from an audience of homeschoolers, there were some excellent questions. I want to discuss two of them.

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More on Cane Toads in Australia

In my previous post, I discussed the cane toad invasion of Australia. While studies of the invasion have shown a new mechanism of selection that is distinct from classic natural selection, they have also shown how limited the range of evolutionary change in cane toads really is. This is consistent with the creationist view and quite contrary to the evolutionist view.

In this post, I want to discuss the changes that the cane toads have produced in other Australian animals. As you might expect, as a foreign species spreads across an ecosystem, it is going to have an effect on the already-established species there. In general, one expects the effects to be negative, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Indeed, a large study designed to assess the damage that the cane toad invasion has done to the already-established animals in Australia says:1

Overall, some Australian native species (mostly large predators) have declined due to cane toads; others (especially species formerly consumed by those predators) have benefited; and for yet others, effects are minor or are mediated indirectly rather than through direct interactions with the invasive toads.

So in the end, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. However, what I find interesting are some of the details of how these animals have changed in response to the cane toad invasion.

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Cane Toads in Australia

A cane toad (click for credit)
A reader E-MAILed me asking about an article she had read regarding cane toads in Australia. The article seemed to have some implications regarding evolution, so she asked if I would look into it. Since I will be speaking to homeschoolers in Australia near the end of June, I wanted to learn more about this issue. As a result, I looked into it, and it is all quite fascinating.

Cane toads are not native to Australia. Indeed, there are no toads that are native to Australia. They were brought there from Hawaii in 1935 in order to control sugar cane pests in northeastern Queensland.1 Now you would have thought that those in charge would have learned from the famous rabbit fiasco that was recognized as a serious problem in Australia by the turn of the century, but apparently they did not. Instead, they brought the cane toad in to control the pests and, not surprisingly, it started to spread far beyond where it was originally brought. The map below shows you how incredibly far it has spread in only about 75 years.

A map of the original introduction of the cane toad (black), the current extent (brown line), and the expected range (green). Click for credit.

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The MassHOPE Convention

Last weekend, I spoke at the MassHOPE convention. I have spoken there many times over the course of the past 15 years, and it is one of my favorite conventions. It is held in a great facility, and it is very well-organized. Also, while I was young, I used to spend a lot of time in Massachusetts because my father grew up there. It is always fun to go back and listen to people who talk like my dad.

I gave five talks while I was there. Two of them were on homeschooling. I dealt with elementary science in one of the talks and junior-high/high-school science in the other talk. In my elementary science talk, I stress how important mathematics is for science, and I tell the parents that while science is important, during the K-6 years, mathematics is even more important. Thus, if you want to stress anything during the K-6 years, stress the math. That will pay off huge dividends in science later on. As a result, while you should do some science in the K-6 years, you should do it only from time-to-time. You should be stressing mathematics, reading, and writing during that time in your child’s life.

What I find interesting is that most parents seem to instinctively know this already. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me after I give that talk and tell me that they have been doing just that for quite some time. However, they have always felt vaguely uneasy about only doing science from time-to-time and are glad that someone like me has validated what they are doing. I think this is an example of how parents really do know what’s best for their child’s education, even when they don’t have the benefit of advice from an “expert.”

My other three talks were on science. I talked about the scientific evidence for Christianity, about the prophecies in the Old Testament that have been fulfilled in both history and in the life of Christ, and about the amazing science that you find in the Bible. I got two questions from that last talk which are worth covering in this post.

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The APACHE Conference

Last Friday and Saturday, I spoke at the Association of Peoria Area Christian Home Educators (APACHE) conference. It was held in the Peoria Civic Center, which is a very nice facility. Interestingly enough, the home education convention was sharing the facility with a pool and darts convention, which led to some interesting overlap. For example, I wasn’t sure exactly where to go at first, and I ended up walking into an exhibit hall to see what was going on there. I figured I was in the wrong place when a saw a booth with a beer tap!

Once I found where I was supposed to be, I had a great time. Since I am not selling anything these days, I really don’t need a booth. However, the APACHE conference was kind enough to give me one, and it was nice. I put a small card table in the middle of the booth and just sat there, waiting for people who wanted to talk with me. I guess it seemed inviting, because a lot of people sat down and talked with me at length. I got to know several homeschooling parents as well as their children/students.

I ended up talking with two students who had graduated homeschool and are now in college. One was pursuing mechanical engineering, and the other was pursuing crop science, probably with an emphasis in genetics. It was great to hear how well they are doing in their coursework and how much they are enjoying science. Those kinds of conversations really lift the heart of this science educator.

I got two interesting questions that are worth discussing, both related to science.

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